Translating for Guests in Sicily

November 28, 2012

I’ve had a lot of guests in Sicily.

One spoke no Italian at all and kept roping me into doing her linguistic dirty work.

She loved shopping. We entered Max Mara, a high-end clothing shop. “See if you can haggle with them!” she said, fingering a leather jacket.

I demurred, but she insisted. So I sheepishly asked for a discount on a jacket that was not on sale. The shop clerk looked stunned.

Later, at a bar with a caseful of glittering pastries, she pointed at a pretty little ricotta-filled number. “Ask if it is fresh!” she kept insisting.

Reluctantly I did.

“Of course it’s fresh, signora,” the barista said with an offended look in his eye that his extreme politesse could not hide. “It is our specialty.”

Ricotta pastry in Sicily, copyright Jann Huizenga

The experiences reminded me of a time at a business dinner when I was called upon to translate dirty Italian jokes into English. Stutter. Blush. Torture.

Have you ever been pressured to translate words you’d rather not say?

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34 comments to Translating for Guests in Sicily

  • Jann, haggling at Max Mara? Shame on your friend for putting you in that position! I felt your pain and cringed as I imagined you asking these questions. You are a good person! Too good! I don’t think I would have been able to comply with such a request and no, I’ve never been put in that position. We don’t have many guests when we go to Spain but if ever someone asked me to do something similar, I would politely decline. Besides, I don’t think the Spaniards would be as kind as the Sicilians in their response! hee hee! :)

  • Dear Jann…Haggling in Max Mara – I feel for you. I think I would have had to give a brief explanation in Italian first. I’m sure you were tempted. :-) I have translated for my friends who have a small hotel in Perugia. I love to lend a hand but am always forgetting who speaks what. I love this post. I think it highlights that it’s not just the language that needs translating sometimes, it you know what I mean? xx

  • dennis berry

    ask the barista any thing, tell your friend yes they are fresh out of the oven. una bugia innocente.

    • Jann

      OK, Dennis. Mi piace la tua idea, but that would require clever thinking WHILE speaking Italian. Some days I may manage one or the other–but both at the same time?? My brain may explode.

  • Clearly, Jann, you have to learn the power of “no” in both English and Italian!

  • Anitre

    Sconto in Max Mara? No wayyyyy! That’s actually sort of funny. My Italian is so poor no one ever asks me to translate. The Italians take pity on me. Thank goodness!

    • Jann

      Sicilians are always very sweet and patient about trying to bridge the language gap, don’t you think, Anitre? (Love the “take pity” part. :))

  • I can tell by your photos and writing that it would be very hard for you to offend anyone, much less a guest, but there comes a time when you can simply say,
    “I can not say or ask that, but you go ahead and try”. Put the ball back in their tacky court.

    • Jann

      Vicki, you’re sweet to say that! I’m sure I’ve done my share of offending! :) You should have been around when I was trying to get utilities hooked up in my house…But let’s not think about that now.

  • Ouch! Haggling in Max Mara! Noooo …

    Sounds like the real choice about moving countries has just arrived, long after the physical move. Like the world is saying “Choose. The Sicilian way of being in the world, or something other …”

    • Jann

      Yes, well put Sold Gold. You don’t just choose another country, you choose a different “way of being in the world.” And that’s what’s so much fun and such a challenge.

  • Ian Henry

    Hi jan, what can I say, I agree with some of the comments,why are you spending time with a person with an attitude like that.life’s about learning and understanding, not causing people offence.
    See you soon.
    Ian

  • I usually filter what people ask me to translate. I figure they can’t understand Italian so I can say what I want. A friend who was staying with me was being particularly annoying at our local bar so I told a 95year old Italian friend that she was rich and looking for an Italian husband. He whispered to me “Tell her I’m 65.”
    You can have fun with this!

  • Jann,
    OMGosh, that guest does not sound like your style, dear. I think I would have ditched her. Haaa

    NO WAY in hell would I translate her ignorance or was it arrogance?

    Sorry. I hope that doesn’t sound too snotty.

    I do Luv UUuuuuuuu though. Xx

  • Not directly, but at our wedding my Italian husband made his groom’s speech in English which a friend of ours translated into Italian for his spinster Sicilian aunts. Our friend was too embarrassed to translate everything he was saying about how we first met and got together (I was embarrassed too) and so resorted to repeating how nice and kind I am, over and over again.

    • Jann

      Gretta–First of all, welcome to the blog! Thank you for dropping by. And when I finish responding to these comments, I’m going to drop by and visit you. Anyway, I LOVE your comment. That is such a great story about how your friend translated at your wedding.

  • Angelo

    Jeepers, where did you find that friend? Myself being an Italian (& Sicilian) speaking Canadian with my French Canadian wife who is able to get by in Italian we had an experience while visiting the Amalfi Coast. We were in a shop where she and a friend were trying to make up their minds about some tablecloths. I was standing off to the side patiently waiting when I noticed the middle aged sales lady getting visibly impatient with my wife & friend and muttering to herself loud enough to be heard in the crowded store. I heard her remarks and as soon as my wife went to the check out counter, I spoke up in Italian & English loud enough too & told my wife “that’s enough! I heard what that saleslady said about you and she’s not being nice and we shall not make a purchase. I am sure that most of the tourists heard me including a few Americans who were suddenly looking unsure about spending their euros. We marched out & I could hear another clerk apologetically wishing us well as we left. I guess I found myself translating in an uncomfortable situation. I felt like (lol) an Italian mystery shopper looking for misbehaving employees.

    • Jann

      Ha, Angelo, you spymaster you. I guess it’s always a mistake to assume other people don’t speak your language. I guess that clerk learned her lesson.

  • Larry

    On each visit I find more and more Sicilians are speaking English.
    If they don’t (or won’t) speak English, they may understand it and everything you’re saying about them behind their backs.

    • Joyce LaGow

      I have made it a rigid rule both in Brasil and here in Panama to assume every one I meet (or am around) speaks fluent English. That certainly wasn’t true in Brasil when I was there, and it’s not widespread here in Panama, but it’s the smart thing to do.

    • Jann

      Yup, Joyce. So right.

    • Jann

      Well, Larry, I don’t bump into too many Sicilians who speak (or are willing to speak) English, but you’re right, they may still understand.

  • Joyce LaGow

    Diane, love the story! I have the same trouble. When I first moved to Panama, I spoke no Spanish, but did speak Portuguese (spent a lot of time in Brasil and was nearly fluent in Portuguese). The 2 languages are so similar that I managed to squeak through until I learned Spanish. THEN the Portuguese would get in the way! Recently, I met some Brasilians and to my frustration, I’d wind up speaking in a mixture of Portuguese and Spanish (which, by the way, is known as Portunho)–now, when I hear a non-English language, I go automatically into Spanish! I’ve been studying Italian, and am resigned to the fact that when I speak–as I did to an Italian woman not too long ago–inevitably, I wind up speaking Spanish. But going on past experience, I’ll just have to endure a while in Sicily before I stop being totally confused as to which language I’m in.

    • Jann

      I hear you Joyce–I’ve got a linguistic soup in my head, too. Sadly, I used to be fairly fluent in French, but now when I go to France, I’ve got a horrid staccato Italian accent.

  • Leo

    Ah, the cringe-worthy situation of being caught between two cultures and differing perspectives on acceptable behaviour. You have my deepest sympathies.
    (Dirty jokes at a business dinner? …Interesting.)

  • Jill Iacopelli

    The first time we went to Sicily, I spoke no Italian. The night before our departure back to the States, my son came up to me and said that our little cousin (about 9 then) wanted to tell me the “American” word he learned from during our stay. I of course was so very excited that I actually taught him something, but alas my bubble soon burst when he proudly let out his new “American” word – it was “whatshesay” lol, we all laughed so hard, and it is a treasured memory!!

  • I have never translated in Italy, rather I rope my husband into translating for me! I have done my fair share of translating in Japan however. While I haven’t been asked to translate anything embarrassing what I do find funny is getting mixed up between the two languages. I’d get all twisted around and would speak Japanese to the Anglophone and English to the Japanese person! That made for some confused hilarity. Several weeks ago we had two guests stay with us from France. My French isn’t great but enough to throw some French into the conversation. At the same time we had students from Japan visiting my school. I was speaking to the students in Japanese but on more than one occasion when asked a question that required a yes answer I found myself saying, “Si’, oui, hai.” My brain confuses easily!

    • Jann

      Diane, I know exactly what you mean by the “si, oui, hai.” Been there. (How great that you speak Japanese!)

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